there was a vibration! you idiot! [ alarm blaring, bell ringing ] douglas: we were perceived as being very irresponsible hollywood filmmakers dealing with a very serious subject matter. somebody get a medic! nelson: to see this dynamically exposed was, to say the least, unsettling. i don't know that "accident" is the right word. "accident" is the right word. [ alarm beeping ] man: some radioactive steam escaped into the air. narrator: in 1979, one landmark movie predicted nuclear disaster,
then saw that prediction burst into reality at three mile island. douglas: it was 10 days after the movie opened. it was as close to a religious experience as i've ever had happen. narrator: how the groundbreaking "china syndrome" rocked the nation and helped wipe out america's nuclear industry, for better or wo"the china syn" as a work of cinematic art. i hate what it did to my country. narrator: "the china syndrome," up next on "movies that shook the world." hollywood spends $10 billion a year making movies. some hit. some miss. some shake the world. on march 17, 1979, "the china syndrome" exploded across movie screens as the top-grossing film in america and easily the most controversial.
[ alarm blaring, bell ringing ] radiation in containment! it was going through the roof, and it was enormously successful. narrator: but pro-nuclear critics blasted its doomsday premise -- that a nuclear plant could actually melt down -- as a fraud on the american public. man: advocates of nuclear power have contended the plot just could not happen. they say there are too many safeguards. becker: the p.r. started before the movie even hit. you know, "this is just a movie," "this is just fiction," "this can't really happen." we were heavily, heavily criticized as being just totally irresponsible hollywood filmmakers. they had some congressmen who were calling us traitors. i am not here suggesting that jane fonda or michael douglas were traitors, but there is a great deal of information about the kgb's disinformation campaigns. and part of their goals -- and they're very explicit about it -- was to kill nuclear power.
narrator: enraged demonstrators poured into the streets, accusing jane fonda of treason. less jane! more nukes! less jane! more nukes! less jane! critics lobbed hardball questions. didn't it attract you, the fact that this picture makes you dislike the establishment of nuclear power plants? aren't you an activist in that field? i'm more interested in the alternatives. i'm not too impressed by the nuclear industry, but i'm interested in the fact that there are alternatives, and that's where i put my energy. move it! move it! narrator: the nuclear industry was enraged by a plot that implied that reactors could melt down and contaminate millions. we got to dump pressure. jack! we can't take that chance. we were in the visitors gallery, and there was an accident. it was an accident, and we could've been killed! it was more serious than you were ever led to believe. it was human error. that means the plant's not safe. it means that that vibration was a warning, and the plant should be shut down. go back to the control room and start her up, jack.
we got to get back on-line this afternoon. what are you gonna do, jack? you're gonna interview me on television. you mean, from -- from here? you idiot! [ alarm blaring, bells ringing ] no! [ gunshots ] jack godell was about to present evidence that he believed would show that this plant should be shut down. [ man shouts indistinctly ] everybody, stay at your station. [ indistinct conversations ] narrator: few films in history had stirred such passions, much less a first-time script by a radical documentary maker like mike gray. mike was extremely energetic, just a ball of energy, riding a harley motorcycle, i think, wearing black leather. you know, a wild-eyed leftist. mike had done a documentary called "the murder of fred hampton," which was a black panther leader who was shot by the chicago police. and it also resulted in a number of indictments against the chicago police department,
so i decided that would be a good time to leave town. narrator: in 1970, the crusading activist fled to a hollywood in the throes of radical change. in the early '70s, hollywood was in ferment. bart: there were more filmmakers who were motivated by ideas that had social messages in them. everything was changing. it was a wonderfully independently successful time where people gambled with filmmakers, allowed them to make their visions. i said, you know, "what i need to do "is something about the environment, the hidden dangers of nuclear power." this was a technology that was dancing right on the edge. narrator: by the 1970s, nuclear power was becoming a massive industry with an equally massive p.r. problem. in 1945, obviously, two cities were wiped off the face of the earth by the first use of nuclear power in war.
and then there was a large amount of atmospheric testing, including much larger nuclear weapons, and so people were very, very frightened of atomic energy. [ screaming ] narrator: hollywood turned these fears into a "b" movie bonanza. [ roars ] the whole nuclear scare was an undercurrent in exploitation pictures. there were giant ants, you know, who were taking over the world. man: but born in that swirling inferno of radioactive dust were things so horrible... so terrifying... so hideous... there is no word to describe... narrator: at the same time, the public was bombarded with government propaganda even more unsettling than hollywood's mutated monsters. man: tony knows the bomb can explode any time of the year, day or night. he is ready for it. [ explosion ] duck and cover! attaboy, tony. that flash means "act fast."
we were raised with duck and cover and thought it would work. man: it's a bomb. duck and cover! narrator: faced with these relentless fears, the nuclear industry launched its own loopy p.r. campaign to get the public to stop worrying about the bomb and love the atom. man: today we are reaching into the core of nature itself for a source of energy so great that one ounce of matter can yield enough energy to light this 100-watt bulb for one million years. gray's search for a realistic anti-nuclear story line ended the day that he met a disgruntled nuclear physicist. gray: i am still indelibly impressed in my mind at that conversation. and he said, "well, what we're worried about is something we call 'the china syndrome.'" and i said, "hold it. let me write that down," because i know a movie title when i see one. narrator: the nuclear industry had never told the public that reactors had a potentially catastrophic flaw. then we came very close to the china syndrome.
the what? if the core is exposed, for whatever reason, the fuel heats beyond core heat tolerance in a matter of minutes. nothing can stop it. and it melts right down through the bottom of the plant, theoretically to china. but, of course, as soon as it hits groundwater, it blasts into the atmosphere and sends out clouds of radioactivity. well, it had been skillfully suppressed by the engineering people who were involved. if people found out about this, they would be unnecessarily frightened. "so we won't tell them." man: nuclear reactors produce electricity without releasing any combustion products to the air and pose no environmental threat that is beyond technical competence. i was my own model as the documentary cameraman there was a conspira who happens to catch something on film that he doesn't understand. douglas: when the script of "the china syndrome" first came to me, written by mike gray, i saw a great horror movie, kind of in the spirit of "godzilla,"
with this nuclear power plant being the monster. columbia pictures put my production company together with jane fonda, who was working on the karen silkwood story at that time, and realized that they had two nuclear-subject pictures, and ours was further along. narrator: fonda was hollywood's top female star and a lightning rod on-screen and off. she was the leading feminist activist on the scene. brockovich-ellis: i was in high school. i just thought that jane fonda was cool. she went out and did something, so i just saw her as really cool. narrator: on the set, director james bridges insisted on strict scientific accuracy. we brought in our technical experts, the people that were gonna give us the most likely scenario for a meltdown. narrator: as filming drew to a close, gray felt like the filmmakers were in a nightmare race with reality. i said, "michael, there's a real accident out there
that's waiting to happen. and if that happens 12 days before the movie comes out, we are screwed." [ alarm blaring ] narrator: coming up, was mike gray's dire prediction mere paranoia, or was a catastrophe really waiting to happen? gray: i got a call from michael douglas, and he said, "haven't you heard? there's been an accident at three mile island." narrator: panic in pennsylvania and vindication in hollywood when "movies that shook the world" returns.
narrator: for 12 days after "the china syndrome" opened, it drew record crowds, but furious debate raged over whether its doomsday premise was real or liberal propaganda. this is jack godell. we have a serious condition. you get everybody into safety areas and make sure that they stay there. man: caution. this is not a drill.
this is not a drill. narrator: then at 3:53 a.m. on the morning of march 28, 1979, 90 alarms went off at the nuclear power plant at three mile island, pennsylvania. in a nuclear power plant near harrisburg, pennsylvania, the cooling system broke down this morning. some radioactive steam escaped into the air. radiation passed through the four-foot concrete walls and was detected a mile away from the plant. [ sirens blaring ] ...evacuation. please stay inside... man: power-plant workers are trying to figure out how to cooldown... ...fear of a possible meltdown and nuclear catastrophe. i was in new york and, as i said, it was as close to a religious experience as i've ever had happen. [ sirens wailing ] man: and it's probably the most serious incident involving nuclear power generation in the history of the industry in this country. a catastrophic accident called a meltdown could still be possible within a few days.
narrator: if the containment vessel blew, thousands might die and much of pennsylvania could be permanently contaminated -- the exact scenario outlined in "the china syndrome." rogers: there was terror. my god, the top would blow off this thing, and then the containment will crack, and then goodness knows what else will get out. the mood in central pennsylvania tonight is tense. ...to leave the area within a 5-mile radius. it was a combination of human error and design shortcomings, and there were astonishing points of similarity between the incident as portrayed in the movie and the incident as occurred at three mile island. it was explaining to us through fiction what was happening in the real world in pennsylvania. they were moving water from one tank into another tank in the reactor, and a valve went. jack, it just might be a feed water leak. which valve? can't really tell. hey, jack. what?! look at this water level indicator.
water level's low. medved: before the accident, the debate about the movie had been, "are the filmmakers irresponsible?" after the accident, the debate was, "is the industry irresponsible?" there was egg on their face -- radioactive egg. narrator: some similarities were bone-tingling. the number of people killed would depend on which way the wind is blowing, render an area the size of pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable. thornburg: just pure coincidence, and that really sent a chill up my spine. you felt somehow there was some magic hand writing the script. a lot of people have said, "wow, what did you do to arrange that accident?" douglas: the nightly news went on, and there i'm looking at a split screen... yes, the situation is under control. the situation inside was resolved. even now, it puts just chills up my side because the reality was staggering. we had some minor releases of low-level radiation, but there was nothing here that was catastrophic
or unplanned for. i'd like to stress that the public was never in any danger at any time. there was some damage done to the plant, but it was very slight and it's been totally contained. i personally think that the crisis is over, if you want to refer to it as that. narrator: the film utterly transformed the way america viewed the accident and nuclear power. rogers: i think there's no question that if the movie had not existed, that the public reaction to tmi would have been much less severe. man: moviegoers in harrisburg are filing in to see "the china syndrome," a controversial film about an accident at a nuclear power plant. how do the people here react to the similarity? well, it scares me to death. i would say 99% of the reaction to it i th t was based on having seen the movie. narrator: on wall street, the stock in columbia pictures instantly shot up 5%. columbia stock has been going up about as fast as the reactor manufacturers' stock has been dropping.
man: tonight, more families arrived with bedding to sleep at a sports arena about 11 miles from the power plant. narrator: but back in hollywood, michael douglas faced a moral dilemma. douglas: we pulled it back. we pulled back our promotion when the incident happened. karen: we don't want to give the appearance, nor do we wish to profit by the misery of the people in three mile island. man: one doctor admitted he had no way of telling any patient how much they had risked by living in the shadow of the accident. i'm scared. tomashoff: as the three mile island crisis was unfolding, jann wenner at "rolling stone" decided to send the one guy he figured could actually get at the bottom of this story. it turned out to be the guy who wrote the script for "the china syndrome." narrator: but when mike gray roared into the danger zone, he could not escape the fact that he was part of the story. how do you feel about the fact that your fiction is so close to what's happening here now?
well, it's not surprising. i mean, i'm not surprised. to us, it seemed apparent that there were a lot of unanswered questions about this whole issue. narrator: coming up, as panicked thousands fled pennsylvania, the nation was about to discover how close we really came to the china syndrome. the city of harrisburg, pennsylvania, would no longer be occupied. they would have had to pick another capital for the state. narrator: but could a hollywood thriller actually derail a multibillion-dollar industry? when "movies that shook the world" returns.
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the three mile island nuclear power plant is still hot. narrator: then president carter paid a surprise visit. man: as the president watched and listened, he was only about a hundred feet from the core itself. gray: i hand it to carter -- he was a nuclear engineer. he knew the risks, and he decided that he had to take it in order to calm the situation and to prevent a panic. the reactor core is, indeed, stable. narrator: as experts finally brought the plant under control, they discovered that the reactor had, indeed, partially melted down. gray: at a certain point on wednesday morning, march 28, the reactor at three mile island was within 30 minutes of the china syndrome. narrator: the accident turned "the china syndrome" into a household phrase but, for a few weeks anyway, box-office poison. contrary to what a lot of people thought, the incident at three mile
did not commercially help the picture. columbia pulled it from some markets. people don't want to go and see on a movie screen things that actually scare them in real life. the nuclear power accident at three mile island cost me personally several hundred thousand dollars. narrator: fonda, lemmon, the screenwriters, and director james bridges were nominated for academy awards. [ cheering ] but the film's real influence was felt far from hollywood's red carpet. the country was approximately 60-40 pro-nuclear before "the china syndrome" and three mile island. the country went approximately 60-40 the other way. thornburg: it's kind of a combined legacy of both the accident and the depiction in "the china syndrome." the legacy, first of all, was to bring the construction of new nuclear facilities to an absolute screeching halt. there were some 70 plants on order at that time. all of them were canceled. this suddenly made it the hot cause.
then you had bruce springsteen and bonnie raitt to jackson browne doing their no nukes concert in new york later in the year. [ chanting ] narrator: back in hollywood, the doors opened for films like "silkwood," about a nuclear whistle-blower who died in a mysterious car accident. douglas: it was great to see eventually that the karen silkwood story was made. i think "china syndrome" opened up the possibilities for other pictures to also deal with serious subject matters. nelson: definitely without "the china syndrome," you don't have that key to the door that now you can explore and... take some chances and risks with. i think that because of the legacy of "silkwood" and "china syndrome," because these movies were successful movies, then it allowed a movie like "erin brockovich" to be made.
brockovich-ellis: they'd often ask, "aren't you afraid? you afraid you're gonna get killed like silkwood?" and i'd laugh because, see, that only happens in the movies. narrator: in the end, "the china syndrome's" role in shutting down america's nuclear industry stands in a class by itself. nelson: these are the kind of films that i love. they have something to say. they're cogent. they're real. they force you into an accountability and a responsibility that is your duty. it really created a generation of people that still have that skepticism. that movie will go down as one of the most influential in history, and influential in a negative way. narrator: but if not for "the china syndrome," experts believe we'd have over a thousand reactors today instead of a hundred, each one a potential target for post-9/11 terrorism. a terrorist doesn't need a nuclear weapon. they have our own nuclear power plants that they can use as weapons. narrator: current plans to restart america's nuclear industry
will have to confront public fears still inflamed by a hollywood thriller from a quarter century ago. i'm racking my brain for other pictures that would be as important or more important than "china syndrome" socially. unbeatable, unbeatable. did "the china syndrome" get it wrong? no, they got it absolutely right with one exception -- it ends well, and i'm not sure the next accident will end well. -- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com captions paid for by amc networks